Big love, in stories about men, tends to be a cheat, a lost cause, or a chimera. In Brokeback Mountain—Ang Lee's moving, operatic film adaptation of Annie Proulx's story—it's exactly what the tag line for the film says: a force of nature. Herding sheep just above the tree line on a Wyoming mountain, two dirt-poor cowboys find themselves suddenly caught up in a passion for each other that they have no idea how to name, much less cope with. Neither thinks of himself as "queer." On the contrary, the mountain itself gets both the credit and the blame for the affair that over the next 20 years will endow their lives with an intermittent grandeur, even as in other ways it drags them to the ground.
Is Brokeback Mountain, as it's been touted, Hollywood's first gay love story? The answer—in a very positive sense, I think—is yes to the love story, no to the gay. Make no mistake: The film is as frank in its portrayal of sex between men as in its use of old-fashioned romance movie conventions. Its stars are unabashedly glamorous. The big-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal is a far cry from Proulx's small, bucktoothed Jack Twist, just as the blond, square-jawed Heath Ledger is nothing like her Ennis Del Mar, "scruffy and a little cave-chested." Yet, even if, in their tailored jeans and ironed plaid shirts, Gyllenhaal and Ledger sometimes look more like Wrangler models than teenagers too poor to buy a new pair of boots, the film neither feels synthetic (in the manner of the abysmal Making Love) nor silly (in the manner of gay porn). On the contrary, his stars' outsize screen presence provides Lee with a means of bringing to vivid cinematic life what is in essence a paean to masculinity.
And masculine the film is. Ledger's astonishing performance reveals an unsuspected vein of tenderness in a character more likely to express emotion through violence than words. His Ennis Del Mar is as monolithic as the mountainscape in which—with the same swiftness, brutality, and precision that he exhibits in shooting an elk—he fucks Jack Twist for the first time. ("Gun's goin' off," Jack grunts in response—in the story, not the movie.) Ennis' surprise at the affair—at its inconvenience as much as at its intensity—reflects a fundamental humbleness that keeps butting up against Jack's willingness to take risks. It's Jack who proposes, over and over, that they start up a ranch together, a plan Ennis counters with pragmatism (not to mention fear), even after his wife, Alma, divorces him. Instead Ennis limits the relationship to fishing and hunting trips two or three times a year. It's as if he believes they don't deserve better.
As for Jack, the same cockiness that makes him dream of a "sweet life" with Ennis also leads him to pursue sex with other men, despite his own marriage—something Ennis never contemplates. In a key scene, Jack, disappointed at learning that, even after his divorce, Ennis has no intention of making a life with him, drives to a louche simulacrum of Juarez, where he picks up a hustler and disappears with him into the literal darkness of a back alley. The scene is unsettling because it presents such a stark contrast to Jack and Ennis' heady, exalted mountaintop lovemaking. For just a few seconds, we get a glimpse of the urban nightscape that was the locus of the very gay movies that might have been playing, in big cities, at the moment when the scene takes place—movies like Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo, in which sexual profligacy is at once celebrated as a form of liberation and mourned as a pallid substitute for meaningful connection.
It goes without saying that Brokeback Mountain is an entirely different kind of film. Perhaps it takes a woman to create a tale in which two men experience sex and love as a single thunderbolt, welding them together for life; certainly Proulx's story is a far cry from such canonical gay novels as Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony or Allan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, which poeticize urban promiscuity and sexual adventuring. Proulx, by contrast, exalts coupledom by linking it to nature. Her narration, with its echoes of Western genre fiction, is knobby and elliptical, driven by an engine as unpredictable as the one that runs Jack Twist's troublesome truck, with the result that it often backs into scenes that a more conventional writer would place front and center.
Though Brokeback Mountain may have the sheen of a Hollywood romance, it is anything but conventional. True, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have ironed out Proulx's kinks, but they haven't eliminated her eccentricities; instead, they've found a cinematic parallel in their appropriation of Hollywood conventions of masculinity. This is particularly the case in the last half of the film, which alternates scenes of quotidian domestic grief (and the rare emotional triumph) with the trips that Jack and Ennis make together into the mountains—trips during which, as they age, sex takes a back seat to bickering and what might best be described as a kind of conjugal ease. What both men want, it becomes clear, is what Ennis is afraid to let them have: the steadiness of each other's companionship. By the end, Ledger's Ennis has crow's feet, while Gyllenhaal's Jack has sprouted a prosthetic paunch and a heavy mustache. The result is a defense of gay marriage made all the more eloquent by its evasion of the banalities implied in the word "gay."
Indeed, with the one exception of the scene in Juarez, nothing in Brokeback Mountain cries "gay." Neither of the heroes eschews sex with women; instead, they simply assert that they prefer sex with each other. At one point in the story, Ennis asks Jack, "This happen a other people?" and Jack answers, "It don't happen in Wyomin and if it does I don't know what they do, maybe go to Denver." Interestingly, McMurtry and Ossana leave this lone mention of possible urban refuge out of the movie, the point of which seems to be less to subvert the conventions of male bonding than to extend them. "Lover" isn't a word Ennis and Jack ever utter. Instead they call each other "friend." When they kiss, their teeth hit. Respect for some burdensome ideal of masculine struggle underlies and at the same time undercuts their ability to love each other: an idea that Ledger in particular brings home by investing his performance with the deadpan, reticent tenderness of Hollywood Western stars from the 1950s. His stoicism drives the movie, and nowhere more movingly than when he utters its signature line: "If you can't fix it you've got to stand it."
Does the fact that none of the principals involved in Brokeback Mountain is openly gay have anything to do with the film's happy resistance to the stale clichés of gay cinema? Perhaps. In any case, McMurtry, Ossana, and Lee deserve as much credit for their tenacity (it took them seven years to get the movie made) as for the skill with which they've translated Proulx's spare, bleak story into a film with an epic sweep that nonetheless manages to be affectingly idiosyncratic in its portrayal of two men in love. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is less the story of a love that dares not speak its name than of one that doesn't know how to speak its name, and is somehow more eloquent for its lack of vocabulary. Ascending from plains where they lead lives of drudgery and routine humiliation, Ennis and Jack become the unwitting heroes of a story they haven't a clue how to tell. The world breaks their backs, but in this brave film, they're as iconic as the mountain.
Click here to read David Edelstein's review of Brokeback Mountain.